Friday, December 14, 2018

Ezzelino Live Cams, Epilogue

I spent the next few hours in a daze. The way this encounter unraveled seemed impossible, unbelievable, or even scripted. From the beginning where I was dragged through the hidden door by the strange man, to the discovery of this strange troupe that lived in an abandoned mall, to the part where I befriended and bonded with them, to the ending where their innocent claims of creative freedom slid away to reveal a paid complicity with some anonymous, sociopathic billionaire.

There's not much I know about life, but I do know this: life is a series of dishwater-dull days that slowly slide by and leave us reassured that we're civilized, smart, healthy and invincible. Those days are occasionally shattered by unpredictable accidents that remind us that we are, in actuality, absolutely none of these things.

I knew the instant I set foot in the studio that this was an extraordinary day, but I didn't expect what had to be the opposite of an epiphany. I recognized that I was meeting extraordinary people in an extraordinary place. I wanted time to slow down so I could record every second in my head. I held onto every word, every image, desperate to remember it forever, letting go only when new words and images overwhelmed me and I had to throw something overboard.

I remember the instant when I realized it was a sham. What I'd thought was a parade turned out to be a car wreck, and I recognized too late that I shouldn't have looked. I'd gone from wanting my own disheveled bed with ROMAN scrawled on the wall above it to literally looking over my shoulder as I fled into the dark. I felt betrayed: not just by these people, but by myself.

I felt like an infant again, like everything I'd known about life had evaporated right in front of my eyes. Hadn't I constructed a persona that protected me from harm? Hadn't I learned to maintain a distance from con men, tricksters, Nigerian princes, and handsome, unemployed men who are absolutely crazy about me? I knew my safety could be violated by horror movies, and the images of people being stabbed in the eyeball that bounce back into my brain when I'm chatting at a dinner party. I know not to go on roller coasters, because I've had bodily trauma result from carry-on luggage and shopping carts. So what exactly had happened here? How had my defenses been evaded? I didn't have the faintest clue, and not being able to understand -- or even describe -- the experience upended everything I knew about myself.

Aimlessly walking the streets of Wiesbaden, I felt a scrap of paper in my pocket. I had yet to start processing the mental notes I'd made, and realized these were evidence of one. Merkur and Melanie had given me their business cards. Of course I'd wondered why they'd had them, since it didn't seem like "making fantasy snuff films for reclusive Swedes" was the kind of occupation you'd want to advertise. Both had said, coincidentally, that they'd given away all of their real business cards so they had to handwrite the information on cardboard.

Both cards gave the same website address in freeform scrawl. Melanie's card also listed an Instagram user name, so I took a table at a coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino, pulled out my phone and searched for her name.

I scrolled through thirty-something photos like the ones I've posted here. In her first post, on August 22, she wrote that she was excited to start working with a new customer.

The Swedish guy? That couldn't be right. That was just three weeks before I'd met them. They'd supposedly been there for two years, I thought: that's when Merkur took over the Spielhalle lease. Unless the new customer was --


Suddenly a sharp new thought sliced through my mental haze. I flashed back on the strange man who'd drawn me into the hidden room. We'd had a short conversation that I'd discounted at the time. One of the first things he'd told me was that there was an explanation for everything. And I'd emailed it to myself.

I switched over to my email account and there it was.

I parsed the words and they slowly revealed their meaning. The alternative scenarios I'd constructed in my head fell away one by one to reveal a truth still cloaked in impossibility.

But the email couldn't have been more clear. The whole thing was fake.

In 1992, the novel Assisted Living was published by the pseudonymous Nikanor Teratologen. Described as a Satanic work of unending violence, incest, pedophilia, racism and cannibalism, it caused a scandal that provoked equal parts repulsion and fascination. What was this work? everyone wondered. Was it an innocent allegorical construction, a boundary-pushing cautionary tale, or the authentically-debauched sickness of a demented soul?

When nice young Niclas Lundkvist came forward to announce he'd written it, the world exhaled, relieved to see the best-case scenario. The book became a best-seller, and then a cult classic. Everyone applauded his ingenuity.

Twenty years later, though, investigative journalists found Lundkvist had an alternative online identity named Ezzelino. Ezzelino was a sadistic, racist, misogynistic Nazi. His 2,000+ posts about concentration camps and gas chambers contained statements like, "The Jews are enemies of the Swedish, German, French, and English people."

Naturally, Lundkvist's work was reappraised again. The reaction to the new information was lukewarm, and many critics stood by Lundkvist. It was clear to everyone, though, that the repellent opinions Ezzelino espoused were offered fully-formed in Assisted Living, albeit conveyed through the fictional lead.

The artists Thomas Bo Nilsson and Julian Eicke created a similar paradox within a convoluted fantasy world. Their installation asked one of the questions this incident raised: could something that seemed innocent, creative, interesting or extraordinary turn into something monstrous with just one added piece of information?

I'd experienced exactly what the artists intended, and what newspapers said about the unmasking of Lundkvist's secrets: how sad it was when something thought to be beautiful, provocative art was, in fact, a terrible, provocative reality.

And finally we get closure. We are left to explore, experience, and, finally, applaud a seamless universe created entirely to explore a moral quandary. I am returned to the best-case scenario: we circle back to the beginning, and I discover a group of artists and actors creating something impossible to imagine yet equally impossible to forget. I offer my congratulations to everyone involved for their most affecting work.

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